When the right thing to do is nothing at all

I have a plan to revolutionise penalty-saving across football, whether teams are in the lowest amateur leagues or right up there in the premier division. In a nutshell, here’s my wisdom for goalkeepers: when your job is to save a penalty, don’t dive left; don’t dive right; in fact, don’t dive at all.

Before I explain I should admit my credentials as a football coach are completely non-existent. Best I can offer is experience from my youth when I played football constantly – in the school playground, on common land every summer evening, and representing my school sometimes. My position was always goalkeeper. Negatively, that was because I couldn’t run fast. Positively, I had quick reactions, great ability to catch a ball, strong sense of positioning, and I was willing to dive for the ball at the feet of an onrushing opponent. The last of these left its mark on me; quite a lot of marks actually.

But my revolutionary goalkeeping insights are from recent observation, not old experience. When I watch football, and the referee awards a penalty, here’s what happens: the goalkeeper stands midway between the posts, the penalty-taker runs forward, the keeper dives left or right, and accidentally or intentionally the ball is hit dead centre. Because the goalkeeper moved position, the ball goes straight into the net. If only the keeper had stood still…

I assure you there’s more to this blog than football advice, so stay with me just a little longer.

To explain my penalty-saving theory, you need to understand these things. Penalty-takers dread one thing above all – missing the goal completely by firing the ball over the top or outside the uprights. So they’re motivated to play safe. Goalkeepers dread something too, failing to stop a shot they could have saved. So they’re motivated to attempt the dramatic catch in the corner. Put those motivations together, and here’s what you get: kickers don’t want to strike the ball to the edges in case they miss completely, while goalkeepers dive as far to the side as they can in hope of pulling off a stunning block. Those factors lead to one result: all a penalty-taker has to do is shoot more or less straight and they’ll score because the keeper isn’t there any more.

However, if goalkeepers just stood still but alert with arms reached out, they’d have a good chance with their body or hands to block a lot of penalty kicks. What if strikers guess the keeper won’t move much? Then they’ll have to aim for a corner and sometimes they’ll completely miss the goal.

Well, that’s the theory. Will there be mass-adoption of my method? Not a chance. Faced with an ace penalty-taker, goalkeepers wouldn’t dare not attempt a spectacular save by diving sideways.

But what goalkeepers won’t do is exactly what leaders should do sometimes. I have to write sometimes because there’s no single formula for all situations. Sometimes the right thing for leaders to do is nothing.

However, it’s important to note two things about that choice.

First, it must be intentional. Not moving isn’t a passive option; it’s an active decision.

Along life’s way I studied for an MBA (a management degree). Advice I picked up that has stuck with me was this: ‘Often the worst decision is no decision’. I agree with that.

So when a leader refuses to budge, that can’t be a ‘no decision’ position. It’s positive. It’s intentional. It’s wisdom that, at that moment faced with those circumstances, deviating is wrong. To change would be a bad option.

Here’s an example. From time to time as a church minister the challenge I faced was ‘the new thing’. People get itchy for something different, exciting, miraculous, or anything that seems to fast track them to super spiritual status. They could be stirred by new worship styles, new teaching, new methods to grow the church, new approaches to the mission of the church, new ways to live close to God.

At 8.00 in the morning, I was phoned by one of our church leaders. He was excited. He’d been to a meeting the previous evening when, as he put it, ‘The Spirit fell on everyone there, and lives were changed.’ His message to me was blunt: ‘We’ve got to get on board with the new thing God is doing. This is the second Pentecost, and if we’re not part of this wave of the Spirit we’ll be bypassed.’ Calls like that aren’t music to any pastor’s ears at any time of day.

But I’d already checked out the new movement he was talking about. It wasn’t unlike other ‘new things’ in the past (so, not really all that new at all), and it certainly wasn’t a second Pentecost. Sure, it offered spiritual experiences, and I believed they were helpful for some. But overall this movement’s message was that you come with your failure and inadequacy, fall under the Spirit’s power, and leave an hour or two later turbo-charged with holiness and spiritual victory.  It was as if core disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, learning, sacrifice, could be bypassed, not needed any more. All that mattered was being touched by the Spirit.

God does touch people, but in the Christian life there are no exemptions from the hard graft of denying self and taking up the cross every day to follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23) Faith is a free gift, but living it out always involves cost. And there are no discounts.

I assured my caller our church would take what was good from ‘the new movement’, but we weren’t abandoning all the old things – foundational things – that were at the heart of our faith and mission. And the movement the caller was talking about? It was gone within a couple of years.

I made a firm decision that we weren’t swerving away from where we stood. It was the right decision.

Second, you need to own your choice. When there’s a penalty, my guess is that goalkeepers get whispers from teammates, some saying ‘Dive left’ and others ‘Dive right’. I got those whispers in my management positions. (Except, usually they weren’t whispers but loud and strong opinions.)

One colleague came to my office and laid out radical change for the organisation, and when I didn’t agree accused me of ‘not being willing to take risks’. I pointed out the many risks I’d taken before he joined us, but that, of course, didn’t satisfy him. He wanted me to take his risks. They were risks so large they could have damaged our reputation and bankrupted the organisation. Well, he wasn’t the CEO; I was. And I refused. He wasn’t happy and probably shared his feelings with others. But an organisation can’t jump this way or that way to keep someone happy. I owned my decision to stay firm. I knew then it was right, and with time everyone knew it was right.

Owning your choice matters also in a different sense. Sometimes your choice will be wrong. That’s inevitable. Even successful businesses have failed strategies because no individual and no team can anticipate every outcome. When there are disappointments there’s also criticism. If the penalty-taker shoots the ball into the corner of the net, the goalkeeper who hasn’t dived to save it (no matter how unlikely a save was) will be blamed. And, when things go wrong, leaders will be blamed, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Bad leaders divert blame to others, which is cowardly. I believe in admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility. As long as I know within myself that I reached the best decisions I could, I can live with negative consequences when plans don’t work out. To survive, leaders must own their choices. Leadership isn’t for wimps.

That last sentence is important. For a goalkeeper to face a penalty kick and stand still in the middle of his goal takes great courage. And it takes great courage too for a leader in any area of life to hold steady when voices around urge ‘Go left’ or ‘Go right’. Surprisingly often, the right thing is to stand firm exactly where you are already.